Perhaps the most critical decision parents face in their parenting journey is who will be the primary caregiver of their cherished and vulnerable new baby. For most parents over the centuries, this has been the role of the biological mother, but in the last 50 years, we have seen a huge cultural shift in the United States, with a larger percentage of mothers reentering the workforce with very young children. In 2006, 62% of mothers with children under the age of 6 were employed outside the home — in comparison to 11.9% in 1950.
About the Authors
Barbara Nicholson, MEd, API Leader, and Lysa Parker, MS, CFLE, CEIM, API Leader, are the cofounders of API and coauthors of the award-winning book, Attached at the Heart. They continue to serve on API’s Board of Directors.
Lysa is the mother of 3 grown children, has 4 grandchildren and lives with her husband near Huntsville, Alabama, USA. She served as API’s executive director for 13 years and continues to work closely with API’s “Attached at the Heart” Parent Education curriculum. She has dedicated her life to improving the way children are treated.
Barbara has 4 grown sons and lives with her husband in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. She continues to work closely with API on fundraising. She views parenting as a prevention model for societal violence.
We begin with the premise that all parents love their children and want what is best for their physical, emotional, and spiritual development, and, when given the facts, parents can then make better decisions and come up with wonderfully resourceful ideas for their child’s care.
Dr. Stanley Greenspan, clinical professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School, and T. Berry Brazelton, clinical professor of Pediatrics Emeritus at Harvard Medical School, have written movingly about the critical necessity for a stable loving caregiver in the early years of a child’s life. In their book, The Irreducible Needs of Children, they advocate for parents to understand their essential roles in protecting the precious attachment process, which is the foundation of their child’s future
psychological, intellectual, and moral well-being.
Dr. Greenspan, one of the world’s foremost authorities on infants and young children with developmental and emotional problems, conveys some of his ideas for childcare in his book, The Four-Thirds Solution. First, he gives parents insight about the critical emotional needs in a child’s first 3 years: “Our society doesn’t tell parents that the most important gift they can give their children is not a good
education, elaborate educational toys, or summer camps, but time — regular, substantial chunks of it — spent together doing things that are emotionally and developmentally meaningful for the child.”
The book describes how different families have adjusted their work schedules to make it possible for each parent to spend at least 2/3 of the day with the baby, not necessarily at the same time, giving a “four-thirds” solution for the child’s care. This is one of many ideas for parents to consider if one parent cannot be the primary
caregiver in the early years.
Exciting research in the field of neurobiology — the mechanisms by which human relationships shape brain structure and function — is
confirming what attachment theorists have been seeing for over 50 years: A baby’s brain, and even his DNA, is shaped by relationships. This was a stunning discovery only made possible with the modern technology of brain imaging and the mapping of the genetic code.
Studies on Childcare
Studies done on the long-term effects of non-maternal care of infants and young children have been controversial and confusing, with mixed conclusions. However, emerging data clearly sound warnings to parents. Some concerning research indicates that babies under the age of 1 year who spend more than 30 hours in daycare — some studies say 20 hours — may develop behavioral
problems as they get older, such as excessively aggressive behavior. Boys seem to be particularly vulnerable to long hours in daycare.
Another key factor that emerges from this research is the importance of continuity of care in the early months and years of a child’s life. Until the child is old enough to verbalize his needs to his caregiver, it is critical for the caregiver to be in attunement with the baby so that his needs are met consistently and sensitively. Try to imagine what it must be like for a baby who is crying to be fed or picked up when the caregiver is overwhelmed with several babies needing the same thing.
A mother of triplets, or especially quadruplets, is given tremendous
sympathy and often offered help in caring for her babies, yet in the best daycare situation, a 4-to-1 ratio is considered a manageable standard. Adding to this the low salaries daycare providers typically earn, is it any wonder that daycare employees have one of the highest turnover rates of any occupation?
[API Advisory Board member] Dr. Isabelle Fox, in her book, Being There: The Benefits of a Stay-at-Home Parent, coined the phrase “caregiver roulette” to describe the high turnover rate of care providers in American daycare facilities. When a baby adjusts to the smells and voice of one care provider and then a new person comes in, he has no frame of reference and no comprehension of this new person, the new smells, or the new voices. When an infant experiences the frequent loss of caregivers, especially in the preverbal years, it can be emotionally devastating, and as a result, he may become insecurely attached or learn not attach to anyone.
Support API with $9 by purchasing Dr. Isabelle Fox’s API teleseminar, “Meeting Children’s Needs for a Stable Caregiver”
The stress of caring for several babies all day long takes a tremendous toll, especially when the caregiver is not emotionally invested in the babies. Dr. Greenspan found that even the most dedicated childcare providers often “hold back” emotionally
because separating from their tiny charges would be otherwise “too
emotionally wrenching.” He warns that even in the best centers, the ratio for infants to caregiver is 4 to 1, and the toddler ratios can rise as high as 10 to 1.
Working and Alternate Caregivers
Mothers who plan to return to work shortly after the birth of their baby sometimes tell their doctors or friends that they are afraid to get “too attached” to their babies. They are worried that this will make separation too painful when they must return to work. However, it is detrimental for parents to distance themselves
emotionally from their babies, because it can permanently impact their growing relationships with their children. Instead, parents should treasure those early weeks of bonding with baby and get to know his personality, feeding patterns and what makes him unique. This will help a mother make better decisions about her baby’s care and create better communication with the caregiver.
“I’ve had young [pregnant] women sitting in my office and they … don’t want to get into the subject of their babies in-depth
anymore,” according to Dr. Brazelton in his writing. “I began to realize that what they were saying to me, when they were not willing to share the deeper emotional feelings about the turmoil of pregnancy or not wanting to talk about nursing, was that they had to return to work too soon. They were already guarding themselves, in pregnancy, from too deep an attachment. Now, that scares the hell out of me… These young women are grieving for what they might have had at a time when they ought to be investing themselves so emotionally and passionately that, of course, it is going to hurt to leave. … If you can guard yourself like that, then what kind of a nurturing person are you going to be?”
Dr. Brazelton is one of many professionals who continually challenge parents to take very seriously their children’s needs for consistent care. Parents must face the reality of the challenges of the childcare situation and, if both parents must work or in the case of a single parent, creative strategies can be used. Find out if employers offer a leave of absence; a parent may be able to return to work after a year or two without sacrificing their career path. Parents can explore a variety of economic and work-arrangement options that permit their children to be cared for by one or both parents at all times. For example, a family can consider ideas for cutting expenses, or they may be able to use financial assets they already have so that one parent can be home.
Today’s workplace is increasingly flexible and family-friendly, providing employees with the opportunity to explore different work situations that best fi t their families’ needs. Some places of employment are getting creative and helping new parents with on-site daycare, or even allowing the baby to stay with Mom or Dad at their workstation, at least on an occasional basis. Some of these progressive companies include Marriott International, Microsoft and JC Penney.
The Parenting in the Workplace Institute promotes baby-friendly workplace programs, and they have identified more than 80
organizations — and they say this number is probably very low — in which employees can bring their babies to work every day. They have found that babies at work tend to be overwhelmingly content, primarily because their needs are met quickly and they are held much of the time by parents and coworkers. Mothers who take their babies to work are more likely to continue breastfeeding, and nursing on cue also keeps the babies happy and healthy. The Institute is devoted to expanding the adoption of these baby programs as well as explaining and promoting the attachment care principles that lead to success for businesses and for babies.
Some parents are now telecommuting, or working from home. This can allow both parents to interact with baby during the day. Some employers allow parents to bring the baby to the workplace for breastfeeding or checking in. Working part-time, working as a consultant, working on limited projects or participating in a job share can all allow parents more access to their infant during the critical first year of life and beyond. Parents who attend API Support Groups often share their solutions for how they found ways for one parent to be the primary caregiver.
Making the Transition to Work
Parents whose work situation does not lend itself to this type of flexibility have even more reason to practice Attachment Parenting. Being sensitive and responsive to the child’s needs and feelings, holding and cuddling can help parents and babies reconnect after being apart. For instance, parents that share sleep with their baby can have the extra touch time that they missed out on during the day. Infant massage is another way to reconnect in the evenings, and breastfeeding mothers find that pumping their milk while separated keeps up their supply so they can continue the nursing relationship when they are together in the evenings and on weekends.
It is also important to realize that the caregiver will be an incredibly important attachment figure in the child’s life, and the parents may experience some jealousy. Keeping the lines of communication open is critical, and finding ways to keep the connection strong with your child while sharing this attachment with another caregiver is important to the health of your child and the success of this arrangement.
Tips for Parents Returning to Work
It is extremely important to have continuity of care with a consistent, loving caregiver. The parent needs to make sure the caregiver is someone who makes the baby’s needs the top priority. Ideally, the caregiver will be someone who already understands the importance of attachment-promoting practices. When possible, choosing a family member, close friend or someone with whom parents have an ongoing relationship will reduce the incidence of caregiver turnover. In the case of a paid nanny, offer incentives up-front to keep her for at least the first 3 years if possible — perhaps a raise each year or other perks. Ideally the care will take place in the baby’s home environment.
Parents should expect and encourage their child to form an attachment to the caregiver. They may consider introducing the caregiver to Attachment Parenting International‘s Eight Principles of Parenting and explaining to the caregiver how they want the baby to be responded to and cared for. Parents may want to consider providing the caregiver with a sling to carry the baby.
Ideally, the parent will give the child time to get to know a new caregiver in the parent’s presence. Parents should begin the transition well in advance of any separation so that it is a gradual process and is comfortable for the child.
Avoid “caregiver roulette.” Frequent turnover of caregivers can be very damaging to the attachment process, so if you are looking at daycare arrangements, try to find a program where the caregivers are stable and move up with the babies as they progress to the next age group.
Minimize the number of hours in non-parental care as much as possible to provide the best opportunity for a child to build secure attachments with parents.
Parents can find ways to reconnect with their children when separated because of employment. Try to spend some quiet time with your child at the end of the day rather than rushing to fix dinner or shopping. Planning ahead, perhaps cooking meals and freezing them, may give you more “down time” with your child at the end of the day. Parents can include a child in day-to-day tasks, and babies enjoy being in a sling and watching Mom or Dad do tasks around the house.
Not Returning to Work? Considerations When Hiring an Occasional Sitter
Although having one or both parents providing consistent, loving care at all times is certainly the ideal, it is not always possible. If parents need to be separated from an infant or young child for a short time, these tips may help minimize stress and fear:
- Leave the child with a trusted care provider to whom the child is attached and who is familiar with, supportive of and willing to use Attachment Parenting principles.
- Respect the child’s feelings and follow his lead about his readiness to separate.
- Talk to older children about the separation.
- Accept that even older children have occasional difficulties with separation.
- Use creativity to help avoid unnecessary anxiety-producing experiences. For example, some parents have found that it is easier for a young child to separate if the child is picked up for an outing with a caregiver rather than the parent leaving the child at the caregiver’s home.
When the child becomes verbal, she will be better able to handle separation, especially if she has a solidly attached relationship with her parents as a foundation. She will be better able to communicate her feelings, signaling her parents that she is ready for short separations, and also allowing parents to check in with her during those separations.
*Top photo source: Free Images.com/Crissy Pauley